Protecting our freedom of expression

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Sydney writers express solidarity for the beleaguered Tamil author Perumal Murugan. NANDITHA SURESH reports

When Sydney-based Indian-Australian writer Roanna Gonsalves stood on the steps of the Sydney Town Hall and read passages aloud from an Indian book, she was sending out a strong message about the right to freedom of expression.

The book in question is author, poet and academic Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman, published in Tamil as Madhorubhagan. It currently stands withdrawn by the publishers after coming under attack by religious outfits and individuals in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for allegedly being “blasphemous”.

Supporting Roanna in her crusade were a group of writers, academics and researchers, who all took turns to read.

There couldn’t be a greater death for the spirit of a writer than to have his or her literary works set on fire. That is exactly what has happened to Perumal Murugan.

Amidst the furore, Murugan announced not only the withdrawal of the book, but also the death of the writer in him. Widespread discussion has ensued in India about such suppression of free expression, and was the mainstay of the proceedings on the first day of India’s leading literary event, the Jaipur Literature Festival, on 20 January.

Author Perumal Murugan

The critically acclaimed Madhorubhagan, first published in 2010, is set over 100 years ago in Thiruchengode (the author’s hometown). It is a work of fiction that revolves around a childless couple whose efforts to conceive a child have been futile. The couple takes part in a Hindu chariot festival in the Ardhanareeshwaran temple, where, on one night of the year, consensual sex between any man and woman is permitted. The author explores the various aspects of the society and the stigma attached to being a childless couple.

“As a writer I wanted to stand in solidarity with Perumal Murugan,” Roanna Gonsalves told Indian Link. “Since I had a copy of his book in English translation, I thought I could do this by reading it aloud in a public space in Sydney, in solidarity with the readings of the same book happening on the same day at Lekhana in Bangalore led by acclaimed writer and translator Arshia Sattar, and at Open Space Habitat in Thiruvananthapuram, and earlier at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014, led by acclaimed writer N.S. Madhavan.”

Perumal’s dramatic decision has shocked the literary community not just in India but also across the world. He announced on social media, “Writer Perumal Murugan is dead. He will continue to live as a teacher.”

It has raised the all-important question, is the mother of all freedoms – freedom of expression, dead?

According to several news reports, the author was coerced into giving an unconditional apology for offending religious and caste sentiments. Besides having his books burned, he was also asked to remove offensive passages from the book.

The author said he is recalling all his books, novels, and articles. He has also said that none of his books will be on sale. Perumal has urged people to not invite him for any literary functions. He also requested the publishers not to sell his books and promised to compensate them for the loss incurred owing to this.

On being quizzed about the author’s ‘death’, Gonsalves opined, “I wish he had not decided to give up writing as he is a writer at the height of his powers, and I hope he will change his mind. We need to understand that he has not made this decision lightly; it is the result of sustained attacks upon him and his family. We must respect his decision as only he knows what anguish and grief he has gone through to make this decision.”

Sydney activist Roanna Gonsalves

This is not the first time such protests have occurred. Flashback to a couple of years at Jaipur Literature Festival when Booker Prize winning author Salman Rushdie was prevented from speaking, ostensibly due to “security concerns for both the author and the public”. His peers expressed solidarity by reading passages from his Satanic Verses, still banned in India, putting themselves at risk of arrest.

Only weeks ago, the Charlie Hebdo killings garnered global attention on the need for freedom of expression. The hashtags #jesuischarlie or #iamcharlie made headlines. The world saw not only journalists, writers and artists, but also members of the general public, standing up for freedom of speech, without being silenced.

“We all need to stand up and object when books are burned or banned, or people who have not even read the book object to it,” Roanna said. “After all, we are here today because others stood up for us throughout history. We are the beneficiaries of protests throughout the years. So, it is really incumbent upon each of us to make sure our rights are not eroded, whether here in Australia, in our homeland India, or anywhere in the world.”

In addition to the book readings of Madhorubhagan, there are online petitions that are currently active to support Perumal Murugan and freedom of expression.

Whether the ‘dead’ author will come back to life with further literary contributions remains to be seen, but the support from the creative fraternity is strong. Meanwhile, the book readings, petitions and social media support, will continue unabated to uphold the mother of all freedoms.

#iamperumal, anyone?

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Nanditha is a food blogger, qualified journalist, writer and editor. Her passion for writing includes feature articles, lifestyle, food, and fashion.